John Alexander Symonds
“I'd say: ‘join the KGB and see the world’ - first class. I went to all over the world on these jobs and I had a marvellous time. I stayed in the best hotels, I visited all the best beaches, I've had access to beautiful women, unlimited food, champagne, caviar whatever you like and I had a wonderful time. That was my KGB experience. I don't regret a minute of it ...”
KGB Romeo Spy Part 3 - Corruption
This is the story of John Alexander Symonds life. The draft book was circulated to about 200 publishing houses and several showed an interest in offering it to the public.
Unfortunately the D-Notice Committee made objections to some of the contents on the grounds of National Security and so the book was never published.
The book is now published in its entirety on this website for the first time.
INDEX to my Biography
I wanted to be a policeman as far back as I can remember. Even as a child I had an ambition to be a part of Scotland Yard which everyone (except criminals) then regarded as a glorious and incorruptible institution,. My standard reading wasn’t tales of derange-do in faraway outposts of Empire like Biggles but stories of true-life detectives, biographies of great advocates and that long-running series of books on Great Trials. My fathers library.!
I had inherited this premature desire to be a crime-buster from my father who had tried to join the Metropolitan Police in the 1930s. Unfortunately he had a hammer toe and was rejected. In those days there were so few jobs about that everyone wanted a secure job for life like being a copper, so police forces could pick and choose. Naturally they valued brawn over brain, so they only took men who were one hundred percent fit. If you had a hammer toe, no chance, even if you had just won the Army 'open' mile and half mile races.
Even so, my father had many good friends in the police, and during my childhood I had plenty of contact with these pillars of society. But before I could apply to be one of them, I had to do national service. With a strong military background in my family and a grammar school education I was able to get a short service commission. I became an officer in the Royal Artillery and was promoted to first lieutenant. At first I thought it could be a great career. I was an excellent shot and I distinguished myself as a troop commander but I served with increasing dissatisfaction because I never saw action., and so I left after serving the minimum three years. This was early in 1956. Had I stayed on a wee bit longer, I would probably have been sent to Egypt to play my part in that ignominious episode known as the Suez crisis. Instead I joined the Metropolitan Police. I was 21 years old and now at last I felt my real life was just beginning.
It didn’t take long for disillusion to hit me again. For a start, the wages were dreadful. It wasn’t much good as a soldier but at least the army had been paying for everything else. Back in Civvy Street I suddenly realised that I had to cover my own rent, food and transport which I couldn’t manage on a basic five pounds a week, or even with another two pounds when I worked a rest day once a fortnight. Outside the police, people of my age with similar experience were earning two or three times as much. There were some perks - as I was single my accommodation in a section house was supplied for next-to-nothing. Even so, the pay was rotten.
I’m not saying this to win pity. Most people had it tough in those days and coppers had it relatively easy but, for the institution of Scotland Yard, low pay had two disastrous and predictable consequences: a poor standard of recruit and a high level of corruption.
This struck me right at the start of my service when I attended the Metropolitan Police training school at Peel House. I found myself among people who were more or less illiterate, thuggish young men whom even the regular army would have rejected. A lot were rough, cockney types and there were others from the north and Scotland. I wasn't impressed with the standard and yet none of them failed the entrance tests because the Met was desperate to maintain numbers. Everyone had to be pushed through. One obvious way to recruit a better calibre of officer would have been to put up the pay and improve the conditions but instead the Met just lowered its standards on intake.
I had barely crossed the threshold of Peel House when I was astonished to hear some of my fellow recruits referring to ‘bungs’ and ‘drops’ -London slang terms for corruption. These were people from places like the East End or parts of south London, whose own dads used to ‘bung’ the local copper on the beat, so even as children they had witnessed police being paid off. At the time I though this was just foolish talk, bravado, to impress naïve bumpkins like me, so I tried to ignore it. All I wanted was to get on and do the two years on the beat that every recruit had to complete before becoming a regular constable.
So off I went to my first posting, in the heart of London’s theatreland at Bow Street police station. I then realised that everything those cockney boys in training school had been saying wasn't just foolish talk. It was all true because Bow Street in 1956 was an absolute den of corruption. It seemed that everyone was on the take. One of the main sources of corruption was Covent Garden Market, a mass of porters pushing barrows full of fruit and vegetables, with lorries trying to get in and out, and all the while private cars and taxis weaving their way through to theatres, shops and offices, depending on the time of day.
Bow Street itself was only a few feet away from a one-way system of tiny narrow streets so that, if these Covent Garden porters followed the traffic signs according to the law, they would have to push their barrows half a mile to deliver their loads, rather than just fifty yards. So instead they used to push their barrows the wrong way down these one-way streets, without a care.
No-one had told me why this illegal behaviour was being tolerated when I first took up my duties on the traffic point at the Strand entrance to Bow Street by the Lyceum Theatre. The traffic was very heavy and I was trying to be fair by allowing two minutes for each flow of traffic. At this point I was approached by several porters who told me, ‘Never mind the rest, let the lorries in’. I ignored them, because I had not long learned my constable’s oath which told me to serve everyone alike.
This didn’t go down too well in the Market so a deputation of porters went straight round to Bow Street police station and complained about this officious traffic cop who was ruining their business. Me! Like a shot the posting sergeant ran out of the station and came down to relieve me from duty. He took me off the point and started directing the traffic himself. He was furious with me but I couldn’t understand why, until a colleague told me the reason: the market traders were paying the posting sergeant a lot of money for just this service.
I still could not understand why a fairly low-ranking and nondescript copper like the posting sergeant should be the recipient of such largesse until it was explained to me that his job - to ‘post’ or assign every beat constable such as myself to a particular point of duty - gave him the power to ensure that where someone wanted a blind eye turned to infringements of the law, be it ignoring one-way signs or worse, only a one-eyed cop would be on patrol.
As the weeks went by, I realised that this posting sergeant was a spider at the heart of a vast web of corruption. He was getting money in lump sums from practically every trader and lorry contractor in Covent Garden because he was the man who kept the Market alive. Without his co-operation - positioning PCs who were ‘in on’ the racket at key points to make sure all the lorries got in and out and the barrow-boys could ignore the signs - it would have collapsed in chaos. But this never quite happened because usually he would rely on older and more experienced officers who were sure to put the traders’ welfare before anyone else’s.
The benefits to these officers were brazenly displayed, most obviously in their means of transport. On five pounds a week, I counted myself lucky to have a bicycle, which was our standard means of getting about, other than bus or tube. Well-to-do older officers might have motor cycles, but it was very rare to see a policeman driving a modern car. And yet our humble posting sergeant had a modern car. He had a new car every year. No wonder his job was sought after. Indeed, it was bought and sold. If you wanted to become a posting sergeant, the job was so lucrative that people paid for it. They paid cash for it outright or they would take it on with a kind of mortgage, paying off their retired predecessors in instalments, giving them an illicit pension. This kind of graft must have been going on ever since the Met was founded in 1829, and probably even before that, in the days of the Bow Street Runners.
A lot of traders would top up their bribes with gifts of fruit and vegetables. On many days you could barely get into Bow Street station because the police entrance was piled up with boxes of tomatoes, bananas and pineapples. But usually the currency of corruption was hard cash, and it wasn’t restricted to the posting sergeant. For example, the porters used to leave half-crowns on their barrow handles for ordinary constables to pick up. And so, some time after I had sorted out my original misunderstanding with those porters, I too picked up half-a-crown. It was my first corrupt act in the Metropolitan Police.
I always remember that first half-crown, which I pocketed against all my background, the way I was brought up, my values, morals, everything my family stood for. But I think I picked it up so that my colleagues wouldn't think less of me. I had realised early on, that if I did not pick it up, I would be ‘out of it’, as far as the others were concerned. The second reason was that the half-crown came in very useful for me, on five pounds a week. Towards the end of every week I would begin to wonder whether I could afford an egg and chips with a mug of tea in the canteen. But I'll always remember that first half-crown, the feeling of guilt and disgust with myself that seemed to burn a hole in my pocket. You see, I had crossed the great divide. I think that taking bribes must be like taking your first puff of a reefer or your first drug. After that, I’m told, it's easy to have another reefer and then go on to other drugs and eventual total ruination.
That first step is the most difficult, or so it was for me, with my steadfast Christian upbringing. After all those years in the church, as a choirboy, in the scouts and in the army, I had a very good idea about what was right and what was wrong. But after that first half-crown, it was no problem picking up another half-crown, and after that it was no problem at all having a ten shilling note or a pound note. I was now soiled goods. I was corrupt. I was bent. I had passed my first real test as a Metropolitan Police officer. I had been initiated. Forget everything I had been formally taught at training school. I had now entered the unholy circle of those who pervert the course of justice while purporting to fulfil the office of constable. At last I was a real copper. In short, I had joined the Firm.
The notes did not come from Covent Garden porters. Those came later when I was on ticket tout duty, though abuse of duty would be a more accurate description of what we did to the guys selling black market tickets to shows and theatres. That was just a matter of going around finding touts, not to arrest them or confiscate their tickets but to be paid off. The touts used to run when they saw you coming, but if they couldn't run, they used to hand over a ten bob note or a pound. And in those days, when five pounds was a week's wages, one pound amounted to a whole day’s pay, and worth having.
But it got better and better, or worse and worse. With every week I served, my more experienced colleagues would reveal another money-making opportunity. One of these stemmed from the fact that, to cope with the needs of all the market workers, Covent Garden had a huge number of public urinals, but at various hours these urinals would be appropriated by other people with other needs, people associated with theatreland, right on the patch, and the House of Commons only half a mile away. In other words these toilets were a meeting place for homosexuals whose practices were illegal at that time, whether performed in public or private. So we used to go on what we called Queer Patrol, which was yet another source of finance. This consisted of lying in wait or spying through a hole until a couple of men were seen indulging in sodomy or oral sex. Bang! That was it! They were arrested. And in nine cases out of ten, they tried to pay off the police who nearly always took the money.
Sometimes it didn't work. For instance, when I was first on Queer Patrol, I was totally green and - as with my first brush with the porters - I had this strange idea that my duty was to enforce the law. Don't forget, at this time I was still a ‘probationer’. I was being reported on by senior officers whose backing I needed if I was going to be deemed ‘up to the mark’. Also I now realise that I had a psychological need for the respect of my peers, along with their comradeship and companionship. Twenty years later circumstances had turned me into a ‘loner’ but at this time I was a wholly social animal. I needed continually to be amongst people whom I could trust and rely on, and who in turn would trust and rely on me. That was one reason why I wasn't going to stand up and say, ‘No, I won't take a half-crown’, or ‘No, I refuse your ten shillings’ because I was never on my own at these times, I was always with somebody else.
But the first time I caught a couple of queers engaging in sex, my colleague and I had no doubt that we must arrest them and take them into Bow Street. One of them offered us a five pound bribe, which, split between us, would have been half a week’s wages, and yet we turned it down. We thought our job was to prevent the public being horrified by the sight of men engaging in obscene acts, and this couple were so brazen that I was sure they were causing discomfort to passers by.
Trust my luck! One was an actor and the other - the man with the fiver -was an MP, Tom Driberg. So we troop into Bow Street with these prize fish, only to find our brother officers looking at us in astonishment and dismay. I ignored this reaction and proceeded to report what I had seen. The duty sergeant was looking increasingly perturbed and he told me to go and sit in the canteen. I hung around there for a long time and when I emerged I found out that another MP had appeared at the station to sort things out. This was none other than James Callaghan who, at that time, was the spokesman for the Police Federation in the House of Commons and would later become Home Secretary and Prime Minister. He was openly paid a lot of money by the Federation to represent our interests, but at the same time he was, no doubt, keen to represent the interests of his own Labour party, of which Driberg was a prominent member. Callaghan also had a lot of contacts and a lot of pull and when he turned up he had a conference with Superintendent ‘Bones’ Jones, who was in overall charge of Bow Street and lived in the flat above. When this conference was over, I was told to forget the whole thing. To drop it. It would be looked after elsewhere. I was told to go out and return to my patrol. Both men were released, and no charges were ever made, I was never asked to give evidence or attend court or to provide copies of the notes of the incident which I had written in my pocket book. The whole thing was covered up. And a few months later the bugger Driberg was elected Labour Party chairman.
Later I was told there had been a huge kerfuffle over this bust of ours, because the actor was quite famous (though I have forgotten his name) and till this point Driberg had led a charmed life. It was an open secret (though not known to me) that he was a rampant inveterate ‘cottager’, whose demand for oral sex - with him performing fellatio on others, usually ‘rough trade’ - was insatiable. But Driberg had two unbeatable insurance policies. He was near enough untouchable because he was a well-known politician in an era when newspapers had not developed the appetite for destroying politicians which they have now. In fact, they steered clear of exposing MPs, however disgusting their sex lives. Better still, Driberg was an informant to the security services, supplying intelligence on his old Communist chums, like Guy Burgess - or so he pretended, for even now it’s possible that he was really working for Moscow all along. But back in the 1950s he was playing footsie with MI5 which, no doubt, would have swung into action to get him off any charges arising from his perverse predilictions or from any excess of zeal by new recruit coppers such as John Symonds.
After this disturbing reverse, my friends told me that I should have just taken Driberg’s five pound bribe and let him go, as this was standard procedure with cottagers. After that, whenever I caught homosexuals I noted they always offered a bribe. They thought it was quite all right for them to use these toilets in Covent Garden because, if they were caught, they could always buy their way out. Many were so open in their actions that they seemed to be inviting us to arrest them. Later one queer told me that it all added to the excitement, the thought of a huge hairy copper like me getting an arm lock round him and carting him off to the nick with his trousers down.
My experience at Bow Street completely disillusioned me. The whole station was corrupt, rotten to the core, where everything was twisted into yet another means for policemen to slip sums of money, however small, into their pockets. Taking money from barrow boys was shameful, they probably earned less than we did. As for taking money from pathetic queers or ticket touts, that was a criminal disgrace. But all this was passive corruption - we did not really tout for bribes, they were readily offered - but once I was adjudged to be one of the inner circle, I realised that my more predatory colleagues were criminals on an active scale.
This emerged when we went on patrol checking doorlocks and padlocks on shops and warehouses, a duty which some of my colleagues exploited to become shop-breakers themselves. For them, checking the locks on front doors wasn't sufficient. They would climb over walls and fences, to check all the doors and windows at the back of buildings. And if they found something open - and sometimes they helped things to open - they would go in and loot the place. They would call up their colleagues to bring round a police van, a J van or Black Maria, and it would be driven to the alleyway at the back where policemen would fill it with stolen goods. The van would then be driven back to Bow Street, where everything were shared out. So now I found myself in amongst a bunch of not only pathetically corrupt men, but criminals in uniform.
And then there was the sickening, unnecessary, cowardly violence. In my view - and I was an amateur boxer, a regimental heavyweight champion with ISBA fights to my credit - if you want to beat someone up, you should be prepared to beat him up there and then on the street. But in the police I was taught to con people into the station, in a friendly soothing fashion, saying, ‘Come on along, never mind’, knowing full well that as soon as they were inside, half a dozen other people were going to beat the hell out of them. This happened many times. Gratuitous violence. A lot of my colleagues were classic school bully types. Out on their own they weren’t brave but put them with a pack, or put them in a position of power over a smaller and weaker person, and they would hand out some terrible hidings.
Most of the victims of this brutality were pathetic hulks who couldn’t defend themselves if they had been sober, but nearly all were perpetually drunk. We covered the Embankment, down by the river, where in those days a lot of tramps used to hang around , sleeping on the benches by the underground station. You would always find dossers and half-crazy people there, muttering to themselves, paralytic on bottles of cheap wine and falling about. Those guys were always an easy nick. Quite often they were filthy and verminous, which was bad enough, but, rather than do anything to help them out of this awful state, certain officers would give them a serious beating. But we never received any complaints from them, because who's going to believe a verminous old tramp claiming he’s been knocked about by a couple of bright-eyed smart young Anglo-Saxon uniformed PCs?
I was taught another game, if you can call it that, by a senior colleague. As a recruit probationer PC, I was told to follow along behind him, even though he had only two years’ experience of the job himself, and to do what he did. So this chap’s idea of fun, was to creep up on the tramps as they were lying down with their feet up, take up his truncheon and give them a tremendous whack on the bottom of their shoes. This would cause each tramp to leap up, and when his feet touched the ground, he used to do a sort of dance, as his foot vibrated with pain. This was my partner’s little amusement. Instead of just waking these tramps and saying, ‘Come along, move on’, he would give them a brutal whack on their soles. In Turkey that’s torture, in London it was just a laugh.
And then there was the racism. There weren't many black people in London at that time, but any stray blacks, or ‘niggers’ as we used to call them, were pulled in and given a bad time. Anti-semitism was another thing. I only ever met one police officer with a Jewish surname, and so he was called ‘The Jew’. I don't believe he was a Jew, he just had a name like Cohen because his great-great-grandfather had married out and ever since then the family had been exclusively Christian. Don't forget that the coppers who were calling this man a Jew were very poor ignorant types who were a bit mixed up anyway. They had to be half-Fascists to want to go into the police force in those days, to be dressed up in a uniform, subjected to discipline, paid a pittance to work unsocial hours, three shifts a day, night duty, early turn, late turn. What's in it for them, if not the opportunity to be licensed thieves, thugs and racists?
After about a year, I decided this wasn't for me. I could be led only so far along the path of depravity, and now it was time to get out. I'd made a mistake. I should have stayed in the army. And yet I was a lot wiser than before, I was no longer quite so green, I'd seen the underside of life, and so I thought, well, this is an experience, I've learnt something. And one of the things I thought I'd learned was... Never, never have anything to do with the police because they were a bad lot. And so I left.
I wasn’t the only person to come to this conclusion. In those days, 1956, there were two Metropolitan Police training schools, Peel House and Hendon, which every fortnight or so used to churn out thirty new recruits. And every two weeks they would be shown in police orders, joining the force, alongside the divisions to which they had been posted. But on the same orders you would always find more than thirty people resigning. So a lot of my fellow recruits were affected the same way as I was. Once they were posted to division they found that things weren't as they had imagined, and they just left, so there was stupendous turnover. Things were obviously wrong but there was no enquiry, no wage rises, and no one made any attempt to staunch this haemorrhage, even though those who were leaving were among the best. The worst, those who found the thieving, bullying atmosphere to their liking, tended to stay on.
The quality of leadership in the force was very, very poor. Before the war Lord Trenchard, founder of the Royal Air Force, had been brought in as Commissioner to clean up the Met. He had founded Hendon College to try and train a leader class of policeman, but when World War Two began, most of those left to join the armed forces. They didn't have to join, as the police service was deemed a reserved occupation, like the miners, essential workers who were needed back home. But many joined up anyway and only a few came back. Some were killed or seriously injured on active service, others just decided not to rejoin after the war. But during their absence a lot of lesser men had decided they wanted to join the police precisely because it was a way out of getting out of being compelled to fight for their country and risk their lives. So in the mid-fifties when I joined, our leadership consisted largely of long-serving sergeants and inspectors who had ducked out of active service all through the war and were very low calibre indeed.
After a year’s service I’d had enough of these people and I was off. I took a job in the City as a sales trainee for a firm of food importers. My first task was delivering valuable Christmas presents to buyers with the salesman who was training me. I soon realised that corruption wasn't confined to the police because in this job we got orders by ‘seeing’ the buyer ‘alright’. That involved kickbacks - altering the cost of materials, overcharging him on paper - so he could tell his company he had paid a hundred pounds for a delivery of rice or coconut when in fact he had paid far less. That was how I discovered it wasn't just the police who were corrupt, so was the whole of the society. After a year or so of this, with similar City experiences in another job, I decided that perhaps corruption in the police wasn't such a bad thing after all. Two years earlier I had been horrified and ashamed and worried about picking up a half-crown off a barrow, yet here was I enabling a buyer to cheat his company out of two or three hundred pounds so I could get his order. Whoever was prepared to grease his palm got the order, and this was vital for our company because umpteen people were trying to sell imported goods very similar to ours.
Another factor weighing on my mind was that recently I had got married and my wife was expecting a baby. There was one very good thing about the police force: as a married man, you could get very good accommodation. As a bachelor I had been living in that ghastly barracks-type place known as a section house: with a tiny bunk, a lot of noise, no lock on the door, and rampant theft. It’s funny but the worst crime rate I have ever experienced was in a police section house: my radio was pinched, people helped themselves to my uniform, even my underclothes were stolen. It was like going back to being a recruit in the army, where you get issued with new shirts, socks and underwear but, if you're not very careful, you're going to end up wearing someone else's holey socks and a rotten old shirt, because someone's done an exchange. In the police it was even worse, and so out of my five pounds a week, I rented myself a private flat because I couldn't take the life in the 'Wapping' section house in 'East End' of the city. But now as a married man, I would get a nice flat in a nice part of London. Pay and conditions had also been considerably improved during my absence, and so I applied to re-join.
I was accepted immediately which proves my point that, with such a high wastage rate, the force was desperate to maintain numbers. And now the job was a lot more palatable. I was awarded that nice flat in a leafy area of outer south London in a purpose-built block overlooking Beckenham golf course. And I was posted to the local station, Catford, just five minutes’ walk away. All part of the package for a married man. So that was it. I was back in the police, partly because I was guaranteed this very comfortable flat but also because I was now prepared to accept corruption. I had come to the realisation that we weren't living in heaven, where everyone was an angel. On the contrary, here on earth man is a fallen creature, he is corrupt, so is all human society, as are all the institutions within it, including the police force.
But I still had several further degrees of disillusionment to pass through. At first I was relieved that in Catford I was not required to extort money from homosexuals in urinals or beat up tramps, until I appreciated that this was only because tramps and homosexuals were never seen in this genteel suburb. Yet there was still corruption. There were still crooked uniform police breaking into shops, there were still shareouts of loot in the station, and there were other rackets too, like leeching off illegal bookmakers and their runners as they went round collecting bets. And so, for all the change of air, the trees and parks, and the neat houses oozing respectability, Catford police station might just as well have been Bow Street because many of the people there had been through the mill in central London and had been baptised into the real world of policing just like me, with a half-crown off a barrow.
Yet even now I was an idealist. I still wanted to live my childhood dreams and become a great detective so, after a few months in uniform in Catford, I seized the earliest opportunity to become a trainee detective: an ‘aid to CID’. I then found myself in a world where everything was turned upside down. The only policemen most people knew were the actors on the television series, Dixon of Dock Green where plot-lines about corruption were rare, but if the series had been true-to-life almost every criminal investigation in Dixon would have been ‘bent’ from start to finish. For what I found in the CID was a kind of corruption completely new to me, and much, much worse than anything I had known in the uniform branch. I’m talking about corruption in its most dangerous and invidious form: the moral corruption where, in order to become a detective, you have to prove beyond doubt that you are prepared to perjure yourself; where there's no chance of ever being selected as a detective unless you are prepared to get together with your brother officers, make up evidence, go to court and carry off the entire charade; where you swear to tell the truth before God, then tell a pack of lies, then go one better and withstand a hostile cross-examination. And your capacity to withstand a barrister trying to break through your carefully erected wall of lies was one of the most important yardsticks by which you were measured for acceptance into the CID.
As an aid to CID, and later as a temporary detective constable, you worked from a CID office in civilian clothes, learning your trade, but all the while, you were being watched and reported on. And if it was apparent that you weren't prepared to give false evidence, or you were shocked at the idea of fitting anybody up, or you refused absolutely to perjure yourself, or you were horrified at the idea of people accepting bribes, or you wouldn't accept your part of the shareout, your share of the stolen goods, then you would never get into the CID.
To get into the CID you had to prove that you were corrupt. The DI might say, ‘Go out and bring me in a suss’ - a suspected person - and this was a test. You would go out and pick up literally the first person you saw, you'd bring him in and then you would say you caught him trying car door handles or behaving in a suspicious manner, pulling at shop doors - whatever ‘fanny’ you chose to make up. In reality it was very rare that you would find a criminal so stupid that he would try car or shop doors in the presence of anyone who looked remotely like a policeman, so in nearly every such case that I ever knew of, this had to be a fit-up. Indeed, the entire exercise was a nonsense because when you really were a CID officer, you didn't waste your time doing ‘susses’. It was only when you were a trainee that your DI would put you through this grotesque stunt, so he could see if you were so keen to get in the CID that you would go out and snatch an innocent man, bring him into the station, tell lies to the station officer, take him to court, and lie him into a conviction.
I did such things. I'm not proud of the fact, but I did them because I knew that once I got into the CID, I was on board the ship. I was a CID officer, and they couldn't really take that away from me. But at least, once I was in, I found it was possible to follow my better conscience and try and keep straight. In contrast, as soon as some of my colleagues got in, they were just looking for ‘earners’. I knew certain officers who used to go into work very early to pour over the night's happenings, looking for potential money earners. Then they would allocate those jobs to themselves and go and cream off the proceeds.
Later I realised that, to be accepted into various specialist ‘glamour’ CID squads, you had to go even worse. That first half-crown off a barrow merely corrupted me - inasmuch as I could no longer say honestly that I had never taken a penny - but the thing that really ruined me, that corrupted my very soul, was having to agree to go and tell lies in court in what amounted to a continuing conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. I must say that during my next few years as a detective I lied practically every day, and so did everybody else. The net result was that a lot of innocent people were sent to prison. That was the worst corruption, far worse than any small sums of money that might have come my way.
So, righteous readers, you may be asking, if I was so incensed by all this corruption, why didn’t I complain about it to a superior officer. Well, that was impossible because the corruption came from the top down. It wasn’t a case of us lowly aids sitting in the canteen devising new ways to milk villains of their ill-gotten gains. It would usually be a case of me being called into a room by a detective inspector or superintendent who would tell me to close the door and hand me a clutch of notes. And no, in that situation I never refused to take the money because, the instant I refused, I would be on my way out of the CID. It would be like resigning from a club by deliberately breaking one of the rules of membership.
You see, I enjoyed being a detective, I wanted to stay in the CID and, anyhow, who could I complain to? There was, almost literally, no-one in the entire detective hierarchy, locally or in the ‘big house’ itself - Scotland Yard - who was not corrupt, or who wasn’t in exactly the same squeeze as I was. I’m sure there were people all the way up, who were not innately corrupt but who had been obliged to turn a blind eye to corruption just like I had. Complaining to them wouldn’t have done me any good because probably they believed their own boss was ‘bent’ too. There was no chance whatever of finding an entire line of command, right the way through to the top of Scotland Yard, in which no-one was corrupt. I’m sure that our overall CID boss, Assistant Commissioner (Crime) Peter Brodie, was not corrupt but he must have been blind to the faults of his ‘men’, like an army commander in wartime who just wants his boys to ‘go over the top’ at the enemy and doesn’t really care to inquire into any other aspect of their characters.
At some stages later in my career, I did want to complain but who can you complain to when you're a sergeant or an inspector and all the people above you seem corrupt? They had to be corrupt to get into the CID, except for those who - as I later discovered - were usually cast into the outer darkness. These people would end their careers working in some country station, on the edges of the Metropolitan district, because it was the only place for an honest CID officer. Busy inner London divisions and the glamour squads at Scotland Yard just didn't want that sort of person around.
So here was a whole reservoir of able people, who had done the job by the book and soldiered on. In the main they would retire twenty or thirty years later still holding the lowest rank of constable. They had performed their entire service with honesty but they had suffered for it. They hadn’t joined the CID to be stuck out in ‘the sticks’. They had joined to ‘feel collars’, to catch major villains and lead interesting lives, maybe on those glamour squads, but they didn't get on those squads or gain promotion because it was a corrupt system manned and controlled by corrupt officers. And even in those stations on London’s remote outer reaches, the posting system ensured that the senior CID officers had all been through the mill. They had all attended detective training school, where jokes about corruption and bungs were so widespread and told so openly, they seemed to be part of the curriculum.
The shame is that I knew a large number of first-class men who would have made far better detectives than the ones that got in. Instead they continued their service in uniform as very disappointed men or they resigned because they had failed in their ambition to become a detective. These were intelligent, honest, decent people who had worked as aids to CID but were inexplicably rejected: told to go and draw a helmet, return to uniform, go on traffic patrol and walk the beat. Some were very bitter, and maybe they realised it or maybe they didn't, but they had been failed because they hadn't passed the corruption test.
There were a few serpentine routes whereby some officers eventually rose to quite high rank despite being honest. I was invited to try those routes early in my career and I was tempted. Through a family friend I was invited to go to Royalty Protection. I was also invited and advised to go to Special Branch. I didn't take either offer because I felt the work would not have been exciting. Also promotion in ‘SB’ seemed slow. I know several officers, good friends of mine, who went to ‘SB’ after being rejected by the CID despite having passed all the corruption, perjury and fit-up screening tests. Their faces had just not fitted and most were quite bitter to have been rejected. If you had a special talent, you might make an honest career on obscure squads specialising in art or stamp theft, but there were great opportunities for corruption there too. One of my friends collected stamps!
I know of only one case ever, where a man who was not corrupt, and didn't tell lies, did make his mark in the CID and that was my fault. This was a friend called Michael. He was a male nurse who had married my wife's best friend, and become a Catholic. He had wanted to be a doctor but had no family money so he tried it the hard way, working as a nurse to fund his own studies. When he found he couldn't support his wife and a rapidly growing family this way, he joined the police, as I had done the second time, to get a steady job with accommodation.
Then Michael wanted to join the CID so I helped him get in but it turned out that nobody else would work with him because he wouldn't accept a halfpenny and wouldn't tell a lie. As I knew him well already, he could work with me without any need to be corrupt or tell lies, especially as the two of us were energetic enough to get straightforward honest arrests. Indeed, as a team, we arrested hundreds of people around South London and we weren’t letting anyone go because we weren't taking kickbacks. They were happy days because that's the only time in my police career that I worked in a corrupt-free atmosphere with an honest man. The problem was, that, after building this impressive arrest record as a ‘probationer’, Michael went into the CID proper and turned up at some other station where his new colleagues were horrified to find a man in their midst who wouldn't take a bribe and wouldn't tell a lie. As a Catholic convert, he was wholly devout and would not contemplate perpetrating even the slightest act of dishonesty or tolerate such acts by others. Inevitably, this caused uproar because he was wrecking the corrupt tradition in that division, so in the end they packed him off to Interpol where, they felt, he couldn't do any more harm.
Of course, they would have been quite happy if he had conformed to the basic code of CID conduct prevailing at the time. On first arriving as a detective constable at a station, certain things were understood. You've been through the mill, you've done your training, you've been assessed, you're corrupt and you're a perjurer, otherwise you wouldn't have been posted to that station as a DC. And people take you on trust then. No one knows you when you walk in but you're a DC therefore you must have been initiated. Straightaway the other detectives can tell you without embarrassment, ‘We’ve got together and made up your evidence, so write it down in your notebook and spout it in court’. Imagine what a shock it would have been when these officers found a completely honest copper in their midst.
They had no such shock with me, I confess. At this time I was a desperate conformist. I would do anything to be accepted, to be ‘one of the lads’. ‘Go with the flow’, they say nowadays but then we were more likely to comfort ourselves with phrases like, ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do’ - and, with hindsight I can see that I had signed on to an institution just like Ancient Rome in the period of its most spectacular decline, with decadence and corruption all around me.
Yet even here, we deluded ourselves into thinking there was no injustice in committing perjury. Indeed, we came to believe the reverse was true: only by telling lies could justice be achieved. Our logic went like this. A crime has been committed. We know that a certain chap's guilty but we can't prove it, properly, in a straight fashion, and so, to make sure that he ‘goes down’ - gets convicted - we concoct a case against him. A lot of it is ‘verbals’, we fabricate a kind of confession from him in our own statements. We just make it up. ‘It's a fair cop, guv’ sort of business, but it goes a lot further.
I remember a shop-breaking case when we took a chap into the cells, removed his shoes and left him there while we went down to the shop, put his shoes on our own feet and jumped about on the broken glass from the window. We sent that glass to the forensic laboratory where the boffins would do a lot of work and say, ‘That's the same glass as the shop window, it’s got the same paint and putty on it, and - ooh! - in among all the dust we found distinctive prints matching the shoes of the suspect. And - ooh! - look at this, the same shoe prints are found all over the floor too’. ‘Cor’, we said, ‘What a stroke of luck!’, and when we got to court, the chap had to plead guilty because we had so rigged the evidence against him that he was bound to be convicted.
I've seen dreadful things, I've seen people arrested and taken in custody, then taken to the scene of the crime and having their hands jammed against something that would take a clear print. If you've got someone's prints at the scene, that's more or less it. They'll have a job discrediting that evidence at court.
This kind of thing got so bad that it became amusing, like when we would arrest hard men and, no matter how much we tried to dominate them or browbeat them or even knock them about, they would only growl and say nothing. If they dared to hit back, that could have dire consequences because not only would they get a real beating but we would put on our creative writing caps and weave wonderful stories in our evidence against them. This would send us into fits of giggling, especially when we had a true master of fiction among us. There was one detective whose capacity to invent evidence was so ingenious, he was so good at making up fairy tales, that we used to call him Enid Blyton. I've made up many a story with him which were not only hilarious to compose, we were seeking to raise laughs in court as well, so we would put some extra humour into it.
Let’s say we have three tough guys under arrest who won't go along with what we want, who won't confess or - as far as my corrupt colleague Enid is concerned - won't put up a bribe, won't make an offer or won't do a deal. When their case comes to court and we're giving the evidence, we portray the real tough guy among them as, all of a sudden during his interview with us, putting his head on his arms, sobbing bitterly and grovelling, then confessing everything and betraying all his friends. This provokes a wonderful set of reactions between the various hard cases in the dock, as four or five serious-faced policemen talk about how the staunchest one among them collapsed and shopped his co-defendants.
We did this not just for entertainment’s sake. Quite often we did it to protect the real informant, because if among a group of people you have one informant, you'll do anything to protect him because you want him to keep him in place. So when you know the evidence may be pointing at him as the informant, you have to divert the finger of suspicion to one of the others, because he’s effectively on your strength, and information from one man on the inside is worth a dozen cops on the outside.
But now a dreadful fate may await the man whom you have falsely named as the informer, even if, till then, he has been regarded by his confederates as the staunchest man among them. He’ll be beaten up or knifed in prison, meantime his house may be set on fire and his wife was punched in the face. When someone in the underworld is branded an informer, coward, weakling and a snivelling wreck, his criminal career is ruined. We did all that to teach him not to be so tough in future. And who’s to say that, in some weird perverted way, by sowing distrust and dissension among these fearsome fellows, we did not take out an entire gang and make the streets of London a slightly safer place? Our conduct was inexcusable, by any yardstick, but we were doing society’s dirty work. These were mostly evil and cunning men, and society was paying us to be even more evil and cunning, in the name of the state, to lock them up. How we did it was up to us, but Honest Joe Public and his missus, along with the Home Secretary and the entire law and order establishment, did not want to know. Instead they preferred to believe that we lived in the best of all possible worlds, and Scotland Yard was that world’s greatest police force: incorrupt, untouchable, and selfless in the pursuit of truth and decency.
The lie to all this was that, while we were only too happy to knock out one lot of criminals, we were working hand-in-glove with another lot. In south London, where I spent most of my service, this meant forming an alliance with a team of villains who later became notorious: the Richardson gang.
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